Early-2000s girl group Atomic Kitten haven’t exactly left a lasting musical legacy – but they can reflect on playing a small role in helping set the path for British Touring Car Championship greatness.
In 2002, for bizarre reasons that still defy explanation, the pop princesses sponsored a BTCC squad. Team Atomic Kitten was a satellite operation run by then works MG ZS squad West Surrey Racing (WSR), and its young driver pairing included a 20-year-old Colin Turkington, fresh from winning the one-make Ford Fiesta Zetec series.
“It was a massive step moving from a 1.4-litre Fiesta into a touring car,” recalls Turkington. “I was racing against guys I’d looked up to. I remember being on the grid for my first race at Oulton Park and around me on the grid were David Leslie, Tim Harvey and Matt Neal, guys I grew up watching on television in the 1990s. That was 18 years ago, but to me it only feels a blink.”
Now 38, Portadown racer Turkington has packed a lot into those 18 years: 422 BTCC races, 51 wins, 141 podiums and four championships – tying the record set by Andy Rouse. That CV alone makes him a worthy winner of Autocar’s Motorsport Hero award, but what’s really worth celebrating is how Turkington has achieved his success. In a series with a reputation for bumping and banging, Turkington is known for his clean racing style and unusually has the respect of virtually all his peers.
Turkington worked hard to forge that reputation from his inauspicious start in his gaudy Atomic Kitten MG ZS. “I was 20 years old and I felt I had to prove myself,” he says. “You have to prove yourself in terms of speed and capability and I felt it was important to earn the respect of the established BTCC drivers. The start of your career is always when you make the most mistakes, so I’ve always tried to go about my racing in a fair manner, to race hard but fair. If I’m going to win something, I want to win it in the right way, whether it’s a race or a game of five-a-side. It’s more rewarding to pull off a great overtake than nudge somebody off the road.”
With Team Atomic Kitten lasting just a single season, Turkington was promoted to WSR’s works MG outfit for 2003, claiming his first win at Brands Hatch. “Once I became a BTCC race winner, I felt some sort of belonging,” he says. “Even winning one BTCC race is hard, so once I’d done that, I knew I had the capability to be successful.”
Turkington has spent the bulk of the past 18 years racing for WSR, the standard-setting team run by Dick Bennetts, winner of an Autocar Outstanding UK Leader award. While he had successful spells elsewhere – driving for the works Vauxhall team and Team BMR in the BTCC, and efforts in the World and Swedish Touring Car Championships – he has always been at his best driving for WSR, progressing with the team as it ran MGs and BMWs. WSR now runs the official BMW UK operation.